A recent visit to Panchukalipatty, a small weavers’ town about 25 kilometres from Salem, was an eye-opener. The town has about ten major weaving societies that are totally self-sufficient in production. They source their silks, yarns and jari threads from Bangalore and northern states like Gujarat, besides training their local graduates in computer designing of patterns.
The societies manufacture saris, half saris, dhotis and handmade shirts. The story starts with the double winding of silken threads either from bolls or bobbins with crude electric machines fashioned out of old cycle wheels and other discarded waste.
The ateliers are set up mostly in cramped halls of single bedroom thatched huts where weavers lower themselves into specially designed pits and begin their work. The looms are strung up with the pattern charts that are painstakingly punched by hand and the required yarn into the correct warp and weft tensions.
Working from the narrow pits, the weavers are able to produce only one sari every three days. If any pattern goes wrong, the entire cloth has to be unwoven and reset.
A bright tube light over each loom is the only concession to modernity, while they slog in airless rooms, as fans can disturb the threads.
Further along the town, in another parallel street, are power looms. These looms are easier to operate but are costlier. However they can weave silks and synthetics and produce about three saris in a day. Parthiban, who has taken to this method after suffering an accident that hurt his leg, concedes that pure silks can only be woven on hand looms. Power looms could snarl the delicate yarns he says.
It made us wonder how such beautiful artistry could be created in such humble surroundings. Most of the weavers sleep near or around their looms. On auspicious days they smear haldi and kumkum on the looms and allow it to ‘rest’ before beginning their exercise again.
Their children played, studied and ate around the looms while wives cooked and washed nearby. Parthiban laments that the finished product triples in value once it reaches the showroom and customer as it passes through several middlemen. His earnings of Rs.400 per sari are a small percentage in the entire transaction.
Mahadevan, a third-generation weavers’ cooperative owner concedes that there are no more hand loom workers in the coming generations. Many have opted out to study and go for office jobs and other professional careers. He says,” It was my duty as the elder son to carry on my father’s work. My siblings are all in different professions.”
Other houses in the beautiful town did tertiary work like polishing the woven saris, stitching patterns onto them ( a fad imported from the northern states of India) and dyeing threads for required shades.
The showrooms located on the main road of Panchukalipatty, displayed the products and had umpteen customers even on Sundays. Most came for bulk purchases either for festivals, religious and social functions or uniform patterns for corporate events.
Mahadevan’s sales girls even modelled the saris to satisfy some exacting customers. The verdant surroundings of Panchukalipatty and its lovely weaves were advertised mostly through word of mouth. Its customers remained loyal despite being finicky about quality, design and price.
Kudos to the town and its enterprise.